A beautiful, moving look @ identity & the inevitable tick tock of life – East Side Players’ Elizabeth Rex

ERI had the pleasure of being back at Todmorden Mills Papermill Theatre last night for East Side Players’ production of Timothy Findley’s Elizabeth Rex, directed by Jan Francies.

A history-inspired, memory play, Elizabeth Rex presents William Shakespeare as our host, as he remembers an evening in a barn with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men after a royal performance of Much Ado About Nothing 15 years earlier. It is the evening of his own death; in the memory, it is the night before Elizabeth’s ex-lover Essex goes to the axe for leading an uprising against her. In the memory, the men are visited by a restless Queen – and throughout the night, Elizabeth, Shakespeare and actor Ned Lowenscroft (famous for playing women) exchange quips and debate the nature of identity from the various angles of sex, gender, politics, art and power. All played out with the ever-present chiming of the clock – reminding all that time is running out.

Francies has an excellent cast for this journey: Lydia Kiselyk’s Elizabeth I is layered with all the complexity and power of this fascinating monarch. She is sharp-witted and regal, suffering no fools; yet open to council even as she is torn between emotion for her former lover Essex, and duty to her position and country. Michael Harvey gives us a lovely Ned Lowenscroft, with a rapier wit, a diva’s demand for perfection and an unapologetic love of men, coupled with vulnerability and empathy, and the haunting knowledge that his time and life are ebbing away as he struggles with his own impending death from “the pox” (syphilis), contracted from an evening with a handsome Irish captain. Christopher Irving brings us a passionate, cerebral and conflicted Shakespeare, performing a careful balancing act with the often opposing demands of art and politics, even as he comes to terms with his own feelings for the young Earl of Southampton. Other cast stand-outs include Malorie Mandolidis, who is a delight as the far-sighted company seamstress and den mother Kate Tardwell; and Paddy Cardarelli is endearing and lovable as veteran player Percy Gower, who loves to tell how he once intoxicated men with his portrayal of women before he came to be a character actor in his advanced years.

In addition to the symbolism of the tick tock of the clock, we are reminded of humanity’s inescapable final destination through the bear that Lowenscroft rescued from the pits, which moans with painful remembrance when the dogs bark, the hounds constantly nipping at its heels, even if just in its mind. And there is a beautiful moment of compassion and comfort between two key players, mirrored by one of the actors holding the bear as the dogs bay. Findley also provides a thought-provoking image of a present-day ‘pox’: Lowenscroft’s pox sores resemble those of AIDS-induced Kaposi’s sarcoma, his colleagues asking if he knew how, and from whom, he came by the disease.

With shouts to set designer David August and lighting designer Clay Warner for the transformation of the Papermill stage into the Queen’s barn, the warm glow of candlelight on wood, the metal of the brazier and tack, and the use of the top loft space opening in that gorgeously mottled red brick back wall; and to the exquisite period costumes by Alex and Carmen Amini of Chifforobe.

East Side Players’ Elizabeth Rex is a beautiful, moving and finely acted exploration of identity, and the inevitable and finite tick tock of life. This play is not produced often, so it’s well worth the trip to the Papermill Theatre – the show runs until June 7.

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Chillingly fascinating journey into man’s dark side – Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde

Last night, I headed to the Papermill Theatre to see Amicus Productions’ Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, adapted from the Robert Louis Stevenson novella by Jeffrey Hatcher and directed by Harvey Levkoe. Not to be confused with the musical version that has also been playing in Toronto recently.

Dr. Jekyll (Christopher Irving) is man driven to find a way through that door of the mind that leads to man’s baser, primal nature – the dark side of his personality – to study it in order to ultimately control it. What he doesn’t count on is his own dark side becoming physically manifest, to the point that a very different man emerges, bursting forth and wrecking havoc in the city, engaging in every form of debauchery – even to the point of torturing, maiming and murdering. And even when Jekyll realizes what is happening, he is somehow able to dissociate those evil actions – they were done by someone else: Mr. Hyde (played by a mini-ensemble of four multi-tasking actors: Chris Coculuzzi, Stephen Flett, Derek Perks and Jenn Sellers). As we are warned during a medical school lecture: Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. Of course, it all ends very badly for the “good” doctor.

Wayne Cardinalli’s minimalist set design is incredibly effective. The central set piece, the rotating door – red on the side facing the street and steel blue grey on the inside – is a perfect realization of that door into the mind that Jekyll is so keen to unlock. Another key piece is a wooden table on castors: an examining table, displaying corpses for medical students in one scene, later becoming the bed at the hotel Jekyll checks into and where he meets Elizabeth (Stephanie Barone), the woman Hyde loves. Orderlies/servants played by assistant stage managers Kristin Myers and Jamie Zhuravel, along with the cast, shift the set pieces and furniture, changing the scenes with choreographed precision.

The use of four Hydes is particularly interesting – and the four actors, including one woman, each bring different colours to the character. Coculuzzi, the Hyde who falls in love with Elizabeth, is a wounded animal, instinct pushing him to lash out, but finding peace and calm in a woman’s love. Flett is menacing as the rough and course Hyde, while Perks finds his diabolical side and Sellers the smooth, charming tones. And Irving gets a chance to find the savagery in Jekyll, as the lines between him and Hyde blur near the end of the play and he can no longer distinguish between his “good” and “bad” self.

Levkoe has an excellent cast to take us on this trip, which also features Coculuzzi’s daughter Cabiria Aquarius as the Little Girl. Barone is brave and tender as Elizabeth, seeing beyond the surface of Hyde’s brutality into his pain, as well as Jekyll’s torment. Coculuzzi (also Dr. H.K. Lanyon) and Flett (as lawyer Gabriel Utterson) do a nice job of switching back and forth from their respective Hydes to supportive friends of Jekyll. Perks and Sellers do a great job of juggling mini-casts of their own, with Sellers playing male and female characters, including Jekyll’s servant Poole and one of the Hydes, and Perks shifting from arrogant surgeon Sir Danvers Carew to a wry-witted private investigator and Hyde, among others.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a chilling, compelling – at times darkly funny – journey into the dark side of the mind. As bad as you know it’s going to get, you can’t help but be fascinated by this story. And the four Hydes on the stage, shifting in and out from other characters, remind us of the potential for cruelty that lies within all of us.

You have a few more chances to see this – it runs until this Saturday (November 24), with matinée and evening performances on Saturday. Click here for more info: http://www.amicusproductions.ca/current_season.php#jekyll